October 1, 2020

The total cost of the 2020 election will approach $11 billion, obliterating previous spending records, according to an early estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than 50 percent pricier than the 2016 contest when adjusting for inflation.

Even if federal committees didn’t spend another dollar from this point on, the 2020 election would still be the most expensive ever. Federal committees have already spent $7.2 billion so far. That figure will increase dramatically in mid-October when congressional candidates report their third-quarter spending figures covering July 1 through Sept. 30.

“The 2018 election smashed fundraising records for midterms, and 2020 is going to absolutely crush anything we’ve ever seen — or imagined — before” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “This is already the most expensive presidential election in history and there are still months of election spending to account for. The unanswered question is whether this will be the new normal for future elections.”

The Center’s $10.8 billion estimate is based on how much spending has occurred so far and how much additional spending we have seen in previous cycles from this point forward. This is no ordinary election, however, and late influxes of campaign cash could push the final total even higher. For example, Democratic nominee Joe Biden reported raising nearly $10 million during the first presidential debate and Democratic fundraising firm ActBlue reported raising $300 million since the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Despite being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 election is seeing record levels of small-dollar giving amid extraordinary enthusiasm from supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump. Women are also giving far more to political candidates than ever before. That’s on top of massive donations from wealthy donors and Michael Bloomberg’s unprecedented billion-dollar presidential campaign.

“The one-two punch of a pandemic and economic recession does not create an ideal environment for political fundraising,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “But donors across the political spectrum are motivated enough right now that they’ve more than stepped up, and small donors are an increasingly significant portion of the donor pool.”

Trump began raising money in the early days of his presidency, helping him amass a massive war chest before Democrats even held their first primaries. But Biden is riding unparalleled enthusiasm among Democratic donors to unseat Trump, helping his campaign raise record-breaking sums. His campaign raised much of its $531 million haul in a matter of months, surpassing the Trump campaign’s total despite the president’s two-year head start.

Spending in the presidential race is projected to near $5.2 billion when all is said and done. Overall, presidential spending currently totals $3.7 billion, smashing previous records. When adjusting for inflation, the 2008 election was the previous most expensive, with $2.8 billion spent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way presidential campaigns spend money. The presidential hopefuls spent less on travel and events compared to the 2016 election, but shelled out more campaign cash on media. Trump and Biden are spending record sums on versatile online ads that are used to attract new donors or spur supporters to request mail-in ballots, among other p

Democrats have a massive spending advantage over Republicans in the 2020 election. Even when removing unprecedented presidential campaign spending by the presidential campaigns of billionaires Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, Democrats account for 54 percent of total spending to Republicans’ 39 percent.

The battle for control of Congress is also helping lift the cost of the 2020 election to new highs. Spending in congressional races is projected to surpass $5.6 billion, a 37 percent increase over the last presidential election cycle and roughly the same figure as the 2018 midterms, which smashed spending records.

Democrats and Republicans running for the House and Senate are setting fundraising records across the country, but Democrats are bringing in more campaign cash. In House races, current Democratic candidates have raised $534 million to Republicans’ $424 million. In Senate races, Democrats have raised $331 million to Republicans’ $280 million, and the difference is more stark in closely watched contests.

Democrats are also getting more support from outside spending groups such as super PACs that may raise unlimited sums from wealthy donors. Outside spending has already surpassed the $1 billion mark and is well on its way to breaking records. Liberal groups have spent $651 million to conservative groups’ $556 million.

This cycle has seen record low outside spending from “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors. But that doesn’t mean anonymous money is going away. These nonprofit groups have instead become donors to closely tied super PACs, donating a record $211 million to outside groups that do disclose their donors. This tactic, which ramped up in the 2018 midterms, leaves the public in the dark about the true sources of funding behind powerful outside groups.

The rise of influence of women donors has continued in 2020 after an uptick in the 2018 midterms. Women contributed nearly $1.7 billion this cycle, already surpassing the record-breaking $1.3 billion feat from 2016. Forty-three percent of political donors in the 2020 cycle are women, the highest percentage on record.

Small donors — individuals giving $200 or less — account for 22 percent of all committees’ fundraising. That’s up from just 14 percent in the 2016 election cycle. The Trump campaign has raked in $252 million from small donors, the most of any presidential candidate in history. Through the end of August, Biden’s campaign had already raised more money from small donors than Hillary Clinton did in her entire 2016 campaign.

That’s not to say wealthy individuals haven’t had influence. The top 100 donors have donated $756 million, or 8 percent of all giving. So far, self-funding candidates account for a whopping 18 percent of all fundraising. Bloomberg alone spent over $1 billion of his own money on his unsuccessful campaign, single handedly accounting for 12 percent of the total amount raised so far.

Traditional PACs — capped at a $5,000 contribution limit not indexed for inflation — lost traction in the 2020 election cycle. PACs account for just 5 percent of total fundraising so far, down from 9 percent through the full 2016 election. Candidates are increasingly rejecting PAC contributions, and if elections continue to get more expensive, PAC giving could become less relevant.